Focus on Archaeology » Vikings in the Faroe Islands

by Julie Skurdenis

Over the many years I’ve been traveling, I’ve visited hundreds of archaeological sites around the world, but it was only when I visited the Faroe Islands in August ’08 that the archaeological site — a thousand-year-old Viking farm — was close enough to be my neighbor.

The view of the village of Kvivik from our bedroom window. Photos: Skurdenis

My husband, Paul, and I had rented a house in the village of Kvivik on the island of Streymoy. Looking out the kitchen window, I could see the site. From the living room, there it was. From the bedroom, the hallway, the porch, “my” Viking site dominated the view.

During the two weeks we lived in Kvivik in August ’08, I became intrigued by it and decided to find out as much as I could. There’s not much written in English about archaeology in the Faroe Islands, but this is a capsule version of what I managed to find.

The Faroe Islands are a group of 18 islands in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway. It’s uncertain when the first people arrived in the Faroes, but they probably were Irish monks who came in the sixth or seventh century seeking solitude.

The first Norsemen (Vikings) arrived around the year 825 either from southern Norway or from the nearby Orkney Islands north of Scotland. Unlike many of the other early Vikings intent on plundering, these first Norsemen came to settle. Although the Faroe Islands are rich in bird and marine life, land fertile enough for farming is meager and so most settlement was along the coast, with inland areas used mainly for grazing. The population was never large, perhaps three or four thousand by the 14th century, 500 years after the arrival of the first settlers.

At first, allegiance was owed to Norway, but after 1380, when Norway and Denmark were united, allegiance shifted to Denmark, the dominant partner in the union. Today the Faroes are an autonomous entity within the kingdom of Denmark.

Vikings in Kvivik

How does the archaeological site at Kvivik fit into this thimbleful of history?

Kvivik was one of these early Viking farmsteads. Excavations prove that it dates back over 1,000 years probably to the 10th century, when a Viking longhouse and barn were built beside a small river flowing through a valley to the sea. House and barn stood at the point where the river entered the sea.

Both the longhouse and its barn are unique. The longhouse, measuring 72 feet by 20 feet, is immense by Faroese standards and was built of a double row of stone with earth and gravel in between as insulation. The bottom rows of stone still remain, but the roof — probably of birch bark and turf — has long since disappeared. In the middle of the longhouse was a narrow, 23-foot fire pit used for cooking and heating.

Parallel to the longhouse stood a barn divided into storage and stalls for a dozen cows. It, too, was large, measuring 33 feet by 12 feet. Nothing like it has been discovered elsewhere in the Faroes.

During excavation at Kvivik, everyday household objects were uncovered: spindles, fishing gear, oil lamps, ropes made of juniper, weights for looms and, most touchingly, children’s toys. All these are on display in the Historical Museum in Tórshavn, 18 miles away.

Vikings in Leirvik

Toftanes, another ancient Viking farmstead, is located in the village of Leirvik on the island of Esturoy. The islands of Streymoy, where Kvivik is located, and Esturoy are joined by a bridge across the narrow channel that separates them. Leirvik lies on the far-eastern side of Esturoy about 30 miles from Kvivik.

Like Kvivik, Toftanes is situated beside a stream close to where that stream flows into the fjord. Also like Kvivik, Toftanes dates to the early 10th century. However, at Toftanes there are the ruins of four buildings. The largest was a 72-foot longhouse with double-built walls similar to those at Kvivik. A roof of turf and birch bark once covered the structure. Half of the house was inhabited by humans, the other half by animals.

Parallel to this longhouse was a smaller house, 43 feet by 13 feet, with a single wall of stone. It was probably used to air-dry meat just as the Faroese do nowadays. On the opposite side of the longhouse stood two smaller buildings, one probably used for storage and the other perhaps a kitchen, judging by the layers of ash found.

Thousands of artifacts were uncovered at Toftanes: soapstone bowls, wooden spindle whorls, glass and amber beads, juniper ropes and several bronze items, including a brooch and a pin, both rare. Many of the items are displayed at the Historical Museum.

Buried Vikings

One of the most spectacular of the many beautiful spots in the Faroe Islands is the hamlet of Tjørnuvik at the northern end of Streymoy Island. A handful of houses clusters alongside a beach enclosed on three sides by mountains.

In 1956 a dozen graves were discovered at the edge of the hamlet. The bodies they contained were poorly preserved and few artifacts were found, but one — a bronze pin — enabled archaeologists to date the graves to the 10th century, about the same time as the farms at Kvivik and Leirvik.

There are not many Viking-era ruins for visitors to see in the Faroe Islands that are similar to those in Kvivik, Leirvik and Tjørnuvik, but, as Spencer Tracy said in his memorable line in the movie “Pat and Mike” when he described Katherine Hepburn, “What’s there is cherce (choice).”

More than the Vikings

The Faroe Islands are far more than their archaeological sites.

First and foremost is the extraordinary physical beauty of these islands. I fell in love with the Faroes when I visited six years ago on a brief excursion from Iceland. There are mountains and valleys, fjords and streams, towering cliffs and rocky beaches. There is the ever-present sea. There is the constantly changing weather that can dissolve into mist and fog in a matter of minutes, softening the contours of the earth.

Viking archaeological site in Kvivik. The five spaces divided by stones indicate where cattle stalls once stood.

There is teeming seabird life, especially during the breeding season months of June, July and August when puffins, guillemots, Arctic terns, fulmars and kittiwakes abound. One fantastic trip any visitor should do is the boat trip to the Vestmanna cliffs on the western side of Streymoy Island to visit the soaring perpendicular cliffs punctuated by grottoes and inhabited by nesting seabirds in the summer months.

Tórshavn is the compact, easy-to-get-around capital of the Faroe Islands, with a tiny Old Town of narrow lanes and wooden houses, two wonderful museums — the Historical Museum, where Viking Age artifacts are displayed, and Nordic House, exhibiting Faroese art — and a good assortment of restaurants and cafés (including our favorite, Gallari Jinx, across the street from the Hafnia Hotel).

Another “do not miss” is Kirkjubøur, at the southern tip of Streymoy Island about 10 miles south of Tórshavn. This hamlet’s history stretches back a thousand years. What’s left from then is a turf-roofed house that claims to be the oldest-inhabited wooden structure in Europe.

Next door to the house, the substantial ruins of Magnus Cathedral are from the early 14th century.

To complete the trio of treasures at Kirkjubøur is the parish church of St. Olav, originally built in 1111. It once housed the magnificent wooden pew ends, carved in the 13th century, that are now housed in Tórshavn’s Historical Museum. Don’t miss seeing them.

What you will see everywhere in the Faroe Islands are houses covered with turf roofs. Every village has at least one of these.

There are also the timber churches, many from the 19th century. The best of the timber churches are found in Kaldbak, Kollafjørður and Hvalvik, all on Streymoy Island, and Funningur, Norðragøta and Nes on Esturoy Island. These churches are small, simple structures with beautiful woodcarving inside and often a wooden ship model hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes there are graveyards just outside the church.

A stop in Copenhagen, Denmark

We highly recommend flying to the Faroes via “wonderful, wonderful” Copenhagen, giving you a chance to enjoy Tivoli, the museums (National Museum, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the National Gallery are our favorites), a few of the many castles and palaces and the lively cafes, plus the opportunity to pay your respects to the Little Mermaid in the harbor.

During our nine nights in Copenhagen, we stayed at the elegant Adina Apartment Hotel, at Amerika Plads 7, about a 10- to 20-minute bus ride from most of Copenhagen’s main sights. The apartments come with small living/dining rooms, bedrooms, balconies, fully equipped kitchens and even washers and dryers. There’s even a restaurant, Otto’s (www.adina.dk), on the premises. A one-bedroom apartment cost 1,550 Danish kroner, about $290 per day at the time of our visit.

To get around Copenhagen by bus or train as well as to reach sights like Hamlet’s Helsingør Castle (45 minutes from Copenhagen) and the Viking ships at Roskilde (30 minutes away), buy yourself a CPH card (www.cphcard.com) good for 24 or 72 hours.

The 24-hour card costs $39 per person and the 72-hour card, $76. The card will also give you free entrance to 60 museums. It can be purchased at tourist offices, the airport or major train stations.

If you go. . .

We flew Atlantic Airways from Copenhagen to the Faroe Islands, a 2-hour flight. Atlantic also has flights from Billund and Aalborg in Denmark; Oslo and Stavanger in Norway; London; Aberdeen; the Shetland Islands; Stockholm; Reykjavik, and Narsarssuaq in Greenland. Atlantic Airways’ website is www.atlantic.fo.

We rented our very comfortable house with the view of the Viking ruins through GreenGate Incoming (Jónas Broncksgøta 35, FO-100 Tórshavn, Faroe Islands; phone +298 350 520 or 521, www.greengate.fo) in Tórshavn. We paid $2,344 for our 2-week rental. GreenGate Incoming offers several dozen mostly simple houses and apartments throughout the islands.

To explore the islands on your own, a car is necessary. Ours was rented from Avis (800/331-1212, www.avis.com) and cost us $1,515. Most of the Faroe islands are connected by bridge, tunnel or ferry.

The excellent website www.visitfaroeislands.com provides information for those planning a trip to the Faroe Islands.